Album number three from Gorillaz, Plastic Beach was preceded by a lot of viral content, simulated pirate radio broadcasts, and record label confidentiality agreements. Much hyped high profile collaborators brought with them expectations and though it took a while to sink in, Plastic Beach is possibly their finest record, genre-spanning and adventurous yet commercial, positioning the band as one of the biggest in the world, not just by sheer member count. They filled in for U2 at Glastonbury for
Bono’s Christ’s sake. This was a performance that divided opinions, and though State found that particular show phenomenal, reflecting on last night’s O2 show the naysayers may have had a point.
No longer hiding behind holograms Gorillaz have evolved from a conceptual pop four-piece to a giant live ensemble, the logistics of which are mind-boggling. With never any fewer than 15 on stage at any time Damon Albarn has masterfully curated an extraordinary cast, threaded together in nautical attire. Two drummers, three piano keyboard players, a seven-piece all-female string section, four backing singers and The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon on guitar and bass, it’s quite a spectacle but still all eyes are on the telly above the stage. After an orchestral call to arms, Snoop Dogg kicked off precedings via prerecorded VT accompanied by some dazzling and impudent horns from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The main man Damon takes the mic for ‘The Last Living Soul’, a great tune but a bit dour so early in the set. This however is quickly rectified. Recruiting Bobby Womack is genius on Albarn’s part, Womack’s voice isn’t celebrated nearly enough – it’s a startling instrument. Joined by Bootie Brown in place of Mos Def, ‘Stylo’ rocked the house with Womack’s soulful scream demanding attention. ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ with the classic De La Soul equalled it on a modern groove level. And though ‘Melancholy Hill’ is a widespread radio hit it took ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ to create intimacy, to actually focus on Albarn’s affective singing and realise that there’s a proper live band playing here.
Sure the cartoons and graphic animations are an intrinsic part of Gorillaz, however with a show of this scale where guest acts are swapping and changing for each song while Albarn flits between leaping about front of stage, to tinkering in the background on piano, there’s more than enough to absorb that the animatic hi-jinx are a distraction, or perhaps just an easier focus than taking in the stage theatrics. This certainly felt like the case in the standing arena, where those seated in balconies above may have been removed enough to take it all in all levels of this truly multimedia spectacle, those closer were a little detached.
In saying that, having a canon of tunes of such magnificence it couldn’t but be a terrific show. Plastic Beach highlight, ‘Empire Ants’, brought Little Dragon’s Yukimi to the stage and while she was drowned out at Glastonbury her voice has since strengthened, well able to cut through the pulsing electronics and spread through The O2. Her performance of ‘To Binge’ was properly touching, there’s a real closeness between her and Albarn proving that while the human factor can move people emotionally – songs like ‘DARE’ and ‘Plastic Beach’ will move people physically. A man known for his emotions, though maybe not tender ones, Mark E. Smith riled the crowd on ‘Glitter Freeze’, his dead-pan musings rang out over an electrifying synthy-jam. Early hits ‘Feel Good Inc’ and ‘Clint Eastwood’ with Kano and Bashy are certainly crowd-pleasers but Gorillaz latest single ‘Doncamatic (All Played Out)’ was a stand-out moment and it was all because of a stunning falsetto vocal from newbie pop singer Daley. Though he was put back in his box a bit by Bobby Womack’s return for the set closer ‘Demon Days’ where he was aided by the choir for a rousing finale.
There’s no denying that Gorillaz are an unrivalled success – all attributable to the mastermind of ringmaster Damon Albarn. The world’s first virtual pop group is now the world’s biggest supergroup but just because there are more of them doesn’t mean they need to play arenas. They could do with a couple of refinements. Perhaps smaller venues with reigned-in animatics would be better suited to capture their uniqueness.
Photos: James Goulden